Realpolitik: A History by John Bew

| September 2016
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9780199331932Realpolitik: A History, John Bew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 408 pp., $27.95 cloth.

Realpolitik is back—or if not back, at least enjoying a day in the sun more fully than it has for several decades. Chastened by the “return” of history in the new millennium, politicians, policymakers, and commentators now routinely acknowledge the value of a little more realpolitik in foreign affairs. More strikingly, and in many eyes troublingly, liberal visions across the globe are now confidently challenged by those who proclaim the inescapability and even the superior morality of realpolitik: from the “new authoritarians” to their admirers in what once seemed the European liberal “paradise” and beyond.

John Bew’ s Realpolitik: A History steps bravely, though not without its own agenda, into this tumult. To understand the attraction, the pitfalls, as well as the confusion surrounding this powerful term, Bew undertakes an impressively wide-ranging survey of its meanings and uses over more than a century and a half. The story begins with a paradox: despite its prominence in international affairs and foreign policy, realpolitik first emerged as a reflection on domestic politics; and although it is commonly perceived as critical of liberalism, its genesis was in the service of liberal politics.

While this may surprise those who see realpolitik as being as old as politics itself, Bew insists that it is a distinctly modern word and idea, first articulated in the fertile if generally ignored Principles of Realpolitik, penned by Ludwig August von Rochau in 1853. In the hands of von Rochau, realpolitik was born out of reflections of idealistic German liberal nationalists on the failure of the revolutions of 1848. Ideals, these thinkers soon came to understand, were an essential but insufficient foundation for successful political action. What was also required was a clear-eyed appreciation of power in politics: of the economic dynamics, social forces, and political structures prevailing in a particular society, and of the strategies they demanded.

Yet, just as these liberals had failed in their revolutionary ambitions, so too did they fail to control the meaning of realpolitik. Soon after its coinage, the word was adopted as a description and philosophy of conservatism, militarism, and exclusive nationalism, which ultimately became identified with German policy from Bismarck through World War I and was revived again under fascism, thus giving the concept the negative connotations that it carries to this day. Realpolitik in this form lost its original meaning and became a metaphysical machtpolitik— a formula not only for conflict but also for naiveté and failure, as demonstrated by German foreign policy throughout most of the first half of the twentieth century.

The second and third parts of the volume turn to examine the checkered history of realpolitik in British and American settings. Here, too, paradoxes abound. In the United Kingdom realpolitik gained a grudging purchase throughout the interwar period, gradually working its way into foreign policy discourse and public debate. Ironically, however, its primary use in this period was as a justification for accommodation to international power realities—in this case German revanchism—in the hands of such figures as Neville Chamberlain and E.H. Carr. As Bew insightfully points out, in this historical setting realpolitik was actually associated with appeasement.

In the United States the opposite was the case. There, erstwhile idealists such as Walter Lippmann saw appeasement as the result of a lack of realpolitik, a stance later cemented by the rise of the realism associated with Hans Morgenthau and others in the postwar era. However, in both countries, Bew argues, power politics existed in constant tension with political ideals. “Anglo-American” realpolitik almost never resembled the machtpolitik of militaristic nationalism. Instead, as a “righteous” form of political “realism,” it has always been marked by an uneasy attempt to reconcile the demands of power politics with values beyond national egoism.

One of the great strengths of this book’ s revisionist history of realpolitik thus lies in its demonstration of the multiple ways that realism and idealism have always been complexly entwined within it, and how current tendencies to divide the world into idealist and realist visions confuse rather than clarify the complex issues at stake. Indeed, Bew argues that history is better placed to undertake this clarifying mission than is the field of international relations, where the quest for theoretical purity tends to reinforce and reproduce a set of caricatures, false alternatives, and narrow analytic models that restrict our grasp of political reality rather than enhance it. Accordingly, Bew argues that his history provides guiding principles for political analysis and action in the future; and in a move vaguely reminiscent of Hans Morgenthau’s famous “ principles of political realism,” the book concludes by distilling eight principles inspired by realpolitik.

The first six principles call for historically nuanced, economically and socially informed, and ethically sensitive analyses of power politics oriented toward concrete situations and interactions. While these fly usefully in the face of much abstract, structural, or geopolitical thinking, they essentially amount to claiming that realpolitik is about the importance of knowing what is real in politics; and one suspects that when pushed beyond general admonitions, many readers will fi nd they raise as many questions as they answer.

Yet it is the final two principles that reveal the overarching purpose of this history. One of the great merits of this book is to show that ideas (and especially ideas about realpolitik) matter. Ideas have power, and claims about knowing what is “really real” are of course among the most powerful ideas of all. Properly understood, Bew argues, realpolitik recognizes the importance of power and interest while avoiding fatalism, despair, and the “ cult of national interest”—and this, he concludes, is precisely the fusion of power and principle best and perhaps even uniquely embodied in the traditions of Anglo-American foreign policy. The history of realpolitik properly understood thus turns out to be happily congruent with (and one of the sources of) a shared Anglo-American worldview that underpins Atlanticist foreign policy. In this light, it is tempting to read Realpolitik as itself an exercise in realpolitik. In Bew’s telling, power politics ceases to be a geopolitics that sees Britain as increasingly marginal to American interests.

Realpolitik is in fact part of the glue that holds the “Anglo-Saxon” world order together, and properly understood it should and will continue to do so. It is not difficult to see how this message would be congenial to the Atlanticist foreign policy community that Bew clearly holds in high regard, and which is indeed the protagonist of much of his story. Nor is it surprising to see such an account emerge from Britain at a time when its political identity (part of Europe or not?), geopolitical position, and relationship with the United States are matters of intense and often divisive debate within what—at least for the moment—remains the United Kingdom.

Yet it would be both too easy and too cynical to view Realpolitik in narrowly realpolitical terms, that is, to dismiss it as simply history mobilized in the service of the political interests and preferences of its creator.

The question that deserves serious and sustained attention is whether the principles and values that Bew finds in realpolitik are worth defending, and whether in a rapidly changing geopolitical situation they are realistic or just quaintly nostalgic. This is a more vexing dilemma, and whether Realpolitik succeeds in making this case successfully is a question that all readers should be willing to ask. It is also worth considering just how far the Anglo-Saxon world that Bew seeks to invoke extends—including the implications of adopting a narrowly circumscribed view of the West and Euro-Atlantic community, reducing it to Anglo-American relations alone. Finally, if realpolitik demands that we consider the social and economic context in which ideas gain power and influence, we must ask if the politics advocated in Realpolitik are not becoming ever more unlikely in today’s United States.

There are clear historical parallels here. After all, von Rochau’s liberal vision of power politics was rapidly overtaken by a much different and more destructive view. If we are advised to return to the original ideas of realpolitik, it is well worth reflecting on their political fate as well.


Michael C.Williams is Faculty Research Professor of International Politics in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, Canada.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 30.3

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